Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Incredible Edible Wall

The kitchen garden. It's something those of us who cook at home hope to have just outside our kitchen door, accessible for quickly snipping a few sprigs of oregano, picking some lettuce leaves, or pulling a few radishes. But if you live in a condo or apartment you're probably limited to a small balcony or terrace. And, if you're a chef in the city, you may not even have that surrounding your restaurant.

Enter Jim Mumford, owner of the San Diego-based plant company Good Earth, and his edible walls, an idea so cool in concept that chef Mario Batali is his first restaurant customer. According to Mumford, Batali wanted a roof garden at his restaurants Osteria Mozza and Pizzaria Mozza in Los Angeles, but couldn't get it to work with the building specs. So, if he couldn't go horizontal, how about vertical? After doing some research on his own, he found Mumford, who has been playing with the concept with several types of materials and styles.

The granddaddy of living walls is Patrick Blanc in France. Le Mur Vegetal, or vertical garden, grows without soil, indoors or out, and is designed to be lightweight. Mumford has taken some of these concepts and begun trials with five different systems, not just for edible plants, but also succulents and tropicals.




There's a foam-based unit with foam cells holding onto air and water. A drip emitter with fertilizer is injected into the foam or sprayed onto the surface. There's another that's a synthetic fabric pocket system. The indoor version has a rubberized liner to prevent water leaking.




And, there are a couple of units that have dirt-filled modules covered with landscape fabric to keep the soil in when the wall is erect. Cut a slit into the fabric to plant each seedling, let the units rest horizontally while the plants root and grow, and then install them vertically.




That's the process Batali's wall is undergoing right now. His walls are eight inches thick, compared to the usual five inches. There are three units totalling 18 modules that when put together will create a wall 12 feet wide by six feet high and an opening on the top is allowing the planting of lettuces. No space goes to waste.



What's in Batali's garden? Edible geraniums and mints. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and Chinese celery. Beets, spinach, dandelions, and chicory, with lettuces along the top. The garden is still taking root, but the plan is to install it at the end of January. And, it'll look something like this demonstration wall:




The soil is a blend designed to be lighter in weight. And, yes, you'll always see the frame to some extent. The trick is maintenance--watering, pruning, feeding, and replanting plants that have reached the end of their life or just thinned out.

Another issue Mumford is working out is the installation itself. He'd like these to be accessible to homeowners, particularly those with small outdoor spaces. "The problem is we have to put holes in the walls, plus you need automatic irrigation because hand watering creates too many failures," he points out. So, he's working on the engineering to figure out a workaround that would enable people in condos and apartments to install them in their outdoor spaces and have a way to grow their own fresh produce.

"As we become more dense in our urban areas, we need to come up with new ways to garden," he says. "Vertical farming is a way to do that in small spaces."

Good Earth Plant Company is located at 7922 Armour St. in Kearny Mesa. The phone number is 858-576-9300.

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